Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)

Shipping Out

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)
Shipping Out
oil on canvas
40 x 28½ in. (101.6 x 72.4 cm.)
Painted in 1942.
[With]American Art Association, New York.
Private collection, Los Angeles, California, by 1946.
[With]Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York, by 1988.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2003.

Lot Essay

Thomas Hart Benton was the son of a Missouri politician who passed on his strong patriotic feeling toward his country. Evident in his paintings throughout his career, Benton loved the spirit, vitality and strength of the American people and the landscapes they lived in. It was his passionate patriotism that made the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor particularly infuriating for Benton. Until that point, the tension and struggle of the onset of World War II had greatly diminished his creativity and artistic production, "the worsening international situation had begun to pre-empt his usual subject matter, to empty him of painting ideas, as he said, and to diminish the size of his audience." (M. Baigell, Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1975, p.113) Benton's intense anger at Pearl Harbor, however, marked the end of his creative dormancy and inspired a period of increased productivity and popular attention.

Deeply affected by this tragic event, Benton left midway through a traveling lecture series to return to his studio and in his words, "try to wake up the middle west to the grimness of our national situation." (E. Doss, Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism, Chicago, Illinois, 1991, p. 282) Benton's anger inspired the creation of multiple works, most notably The Year of Peril series (1942, State Historical Society of Missouri), which was often reproduced in news reels, newspapers and propaganda booklets.

Benton continued to use World War II as a subject, but his focus shifted from the atrocities of war to the daily lives of the troops. "Through the remainder of the war, Benton struggled to paint subjects related to it. He painted GI's embarking for North Africa and a black soldier in the front line of battle. He accompanied a submarine crew on maneuvers. He sketched the construction of a troop ship in Pittsburgh, watched it being launched, and followed it down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where it joined the fleet...Unlike Year of Peril, these paintings did not in any way glorify the ugliness of war." (H. Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, New York, 1989, p. 316) Shipping Out, which portrays a group of soldiers walking the ramp to a ship, is one of these works in which Benton was more concerned with the narrative of the war than with the carnage. Here, Benton renders a touching portrait of one of the soldiers who looks at the viewer over his shoulder as he walks toward the ship. He is laden with the accoutrements of war, including rifles, a canteen and a large backpack. He looks back valiantly but with a tinge of apprehension, and it is apparent that he is a young man, perhaps still in his teens.

Shipping Out demonstrates a shift in Benton's style. In his earlier works, he integrated figure and background in a format that adhered to a formal pattern. In Shipping Out and other works of the early 1940s, narrative is of primary concern. As in the present work, Benton separates and emphasizes the figure over the background and landscape. "He began to emphasize storytelling elements rather than formal patterns. Where he had once carefully contrived continuities of gesture and of tone and shape related to background forms, he now detached his figures from the surrounding field. He began to individualize a house in the landscape, a human form, or a table, so that each object became sealed within its own borders. The space that at one time paralleled reality now came to serve as a backdrop for the story of the painting." (Thomas Hart Benton, 1975, p. 113) Works such as Shipping Out represent an important transition in Benton's career as he continued to emphasize the narrative aspect of his work for the remainder of his career.

This work will be included in the forthcoming Thomas Hart Benton catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Thomas Hart Benton Catalogue Raisonné Foundation. Committee Members: Dr. Henry Adams, Jessie Benton, Anthony Benton Gude, Andrew Thompson and Michael Owen.

More from American Art

View All
View All